MOSCOW: Russia, Iran’s main remaining big-power friend, was disappointed in the results of multilateral talks with the Islamic Republic in Moscow last week. It had expected movement towards a compromise on disputed Iranian nuclear work that would have allowed the high-level negotiation to continue, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said. In an exclusive interview, he revealed how things went in the room with the Iranians and what Russia now hopes for going forward.
The six nations negotiating with Iran – the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany – are calculating next steps in the wake of the failure in Moscow, the latest round of talks designed to win guarantees that Iran will not develop nuclear weapons. Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Israel this week, with Iran a main topic.
The problem in Moscow was that there was “engagement but no agreement” on opening positions such as the six demanding that Iran stop enriching uranium to levels that approach weapon-grade while Iran wants sanctions against it lifted, Ryabkov said. Speaking last week in his office at the towering Foreign Ministry in Moscow, a short walk from the Golden Ring Hotel where the talks were held June 18-19, he said the lack of agreement was not from the Russians’ lack of trying, which included creating a good atmosphere and being sensitive to cultural factors. Even the tables were arranged to get the two sides closer.
At the previous meeting, in Baghdad in May, there had been a round table, but, in Moscow, there were two rectangular tables, one for each delegation, facing each other. “We wanted to have them closer because we think it’s more intimate talk … this way.” It was a big room which allowed for small get-togethers away from the main area, Ryabkov said. It was laid out in what he called a neutral way. “We avoided any major backdrops of any sort. Just sketches to concentrate on,” such as one of the Kremlin. There were no “symbols of any sort.” There were “no flags on the tables,” just stand-up labels to mark each country. The flags were away from the tables. “There was a little podium and the seven flags coming in alphabetical order,” Ryabkov said.
How much this attention to detail helped is not clear. Ryabkov said that there would have been no more meetings planned if Russia had not wanted to avoid a complete breakdown in Moscow. He put it this way: “I simply didn’t want to have a very, very greasy dish left after Moscow with no idea how to wash it up. I mean, we do not want to put a period for political reasons after Moscow. Moscow should not be considered as a political end station in any respect.”
This face-saving gesture, which is a meeting of experts from the seven nations in Istanbul on July 3, leaves room for hope, or at least momentum. “I do think that from both sides, there is a political will to continue, at least until the moment when the group, the E3+3 (a name for the six) may conclude that we have tried everything possible and thinkable in order to agree on … an initial set of measures to rebuild confidence,” Ryabkov said.
However, it remains a “chicken and eggs” situation in the sense of it not being clear “who acts first, what has to be done first … Positions are well far apart.” And so Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili was more assertive in his comments to the press in Moscow about Iran being the winner than he was in the room with the six, Ryabkov said. This makes him worry “whether the US government, the French, and others, whether they are patient enough, whether they can sustain this process for a while in the absence of real breakthrough on substantial issues.” The Americans, he said, want results “now”, mainly on the issue of Iran enriching uranium to 20 percent, a level much closer to weapon-grade than the refinement needed to make fuel for a power reactor. The talks have been “fertilizing the soil, but we need to have a heavy lift … sooner rather than later.”
A positive point was that the Iranians were talking more concretely than ever before. Ryabkov said Jalili was “moving closer and closer to the real engagement type of an effort . . . issues that are being discussed from both sides are very clearly defined and identified.” The Iranians were “quite elaborate in terms on how they lay out their position and what they find in terms of arguments.”
Another sign of progress. The Iranians were no longer trying to “divide and rule” but have accepted that the six are united, with even Jalili saying to the EU representative Catherine Ashton, who represents the group, that he knows she speaks for the six and so “I am talking to you, Katy.” Ryabkov described this tone from the Iranians as “amazing” in its abandonment of rhetoric and lecturing.
While only the Russians and Chinese have held bilaterals with the Iranians — besides Ashton — there is a special relationship between the Iranians and the Germans, who have had extensive trade with Iran. “The Iranians seemingly want to talk to the Germans more than to the others among the European Union . . . They have (informal) meetings. They talk in the corridors,” he said about their contacts. The Chinese, an Iranian ally and major oil purchaser, are “calling for patience, wanting more effort to be applied in the areas where they see chances. They also always talk in favor of focusing in the positive aspects of whatever event and not losing any temper, any patience . . . Which is good because it really brings a different perspective to something that may become emotional at some point.”
Ryabkov has attended more bilaterals than any of his five national colleagues. He said that he is careful to represent agreed positions of the six negotiating nations, and not to pitch a separate Russian point of view. Indeed, he said he lays out for the Iranians the seriousness of their situation and of the international line-up against them, from military threats to sanctions. Despite this, said Ryabkov, the Iranians “underestimate” the threat against them.
On the other hand, the West was miscalculating too, he said, by thinking that ultimatums will sway the Iranians. “The Iranians, they do not understand this talk. Simply don’t. They will not listen to it. It’s against the whole culture of theirs,” which is based on haggling. Confronted with take-it-or-leave-it positions, “they’re blinded, they don’t know how to react to it. They need to have their negotiation.” At the same time, they have to know what the endgame is. “They are more and more making the point that it’s endless. We need to draw the line somewhere. Tell us where is the final demand (they say) and what we should do, otherwise we will never agree on anything you ask us for.” The Iranian point of view, said Ryabkov, is that “if we get a sense that you are not serious in discussing this, we will withdraw . . . But you have a word of ours that will be kept, that no more than that will come in terms of demands on our side (once we reach an agreement).”
Ryabkov said his personal opinion was that the West should yield on Iran’s call to have its right to enrich uranium recognized. The United States says that Iran must eventually suspend all enrichment, as is called for in several United Nations Security Council resolutions. But Ryabkov agrees with the Iranian position that this right is guaranteed in the clause of the Non-Proliferation Treaty which says that signatory nations have the right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy. “What in the world precludes the US, France, and others to recognize this very simple fact” if they can get the Iranians not just to “pocket it” but to allow for a level of inspections that would guarantee they could not divert their nuclear work for military purposes, Ryabkov said.
“What we need here is real leadership on the part of the US, real bold moves,” he added. He said he was “not sure the US is prepared for doing so. And again, I am not instructed to suggest anything like this among the group because we are a fair player. We stick to the position as we know it. You remember Putin’s proposal on Iran? It’s deliberately simplified in a way that he says, let’s recognize their right to enrich in exchange for comprehensive control of their program, and then sanctions can be lifted.” Ryabkov said the Russian experience is that the Iranians can be trusted once they subscribe to a deal, and that it was worth testing this in a multilateral framework.
But he said he feared the talks were “moving further into an area where chances for compromise are diminished,” especially over the issue of getting the Iranians to stop 20 percent enrichment. The United States wants this as a confidence-building measure, a prelude to moves that could eventually lead to sanctions against Iran being lifted. The problem is that Iran wants sanctions relief as a first step.
Ryabkov said he has told the Americans that “the more we can be flexible on these issues in the course of real negotiations, the higher would be chances” for a settlement. But the United States is “skeptical, very skeptical. They are not particularly optimistic about all this.”
Michael Adler, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, is writing a book on diplomacy in the Iranian nuclear crisis. Michael covered this extensively for five years while in Vienna, where he reported on the International Atomic Energy Agency.